Once, I actually found myself sleeping with a witch doctor, right across the fire pit from him. You ask, “Were you scared?” Well, yeah I was. Trembly-scared.
How it came about
I’d been visiting bamboo villages of several tribes in northern Thailand: Lahu, Karen, Lisu. Each tribe has its own distinct language, dress, and customs.. I didn’t speak any of their languages and would have been tongue-tied without my friend and interpreter, Chalaw.
One day, while we were taking a break in Mae Sot, Chalaw asked, “Auntie, you like go see witch doctor?”
Startled, I asked, “Is it safe?”
Chalaw grinned. “Oh, Auntie, he my friend.”
So next day, we set off by bus for an hour or so and then by foot down a narrow dirt road.
The witch doctor’s village.
Barking dogs rushed out to meet us as we approached the village, and a boy ran up, flailing a machete to ward them off. A scattering of bamboo houses announced a small settlement ahead. Rough circles made of bamboo lined the road.
“Have ceremony yesterday,” Chalaw explained. “Use circles to catch bad spirits. All gone now.”
Well, that was a relief. We didn’t want any bad spirits around!
We stopped before one of the houses, all of them up on poles about five feet high. We waited patiently, the boy continuing to whack away the dogs, until a wizened little man tottered out on the porch. He looked at us a moment, then said, “A bu-u jah!” (ah boo oo jah), or “Good morning” in Lahu. Chalaw answered.
Then his eyes lit up. Recognizing Chalaw, he beckoned us up the ladder to his porch and into his house.
Witch Doctor life style
The dark room held a fire pit set into the bamboo floor, its metal rectangular box holding smoldering embers. One low table was the only furniture. Our host motioned for us to sit as he proceeded to scrub out three Chinese rice bowls of intricately painted porcelain, dipping his hands in the ashes and scrubbing out residue. He rinsed them with stale tea from a kettle, emptying the liquid through a crack in the floor, examined them, shook his head, and repeated the procedure. Finally satisfied, he poured fresh hot tea from a second kettle into the bowls and set them before us.
I hesitated. Should I drink first? Should I wait? What was proper witch doctor etiquette? I decided to follow Chalaw’s lead.
Then I noticed the dismayed look on Chalaw’s face. “What?” I asked.
“Witch doctor, he say these bowls very old.”
“Oh? And?” That shouldn’t cause dismay.
“He say, what you call it Auntie, people in ground?”
“Oh. Um. Graves?”
“Yes. That. He say few years back, man come, German man, dig up graves. Bowls, he find in graves. German man give him.”
Oh great. So what do you do when your witch doctor host gives you tea in a bowl that was once inverted on the forehead of a skeleton?
I looked at the witch doctor. He was smiling at me, his eyes shining with expectation. I smiled back, shrugged my shoulders, and gently sipped the tea. He relaxed.
That night, the three of us bedded down by the fire pit, the warmest place in the hut. I had a heavy sleeping bag and was quite comfy, but the witch doctor, bless his heart, got up, took his own blanket, and covered me to be sure I would be warm. Ah. Witch doctor hospitality!